By Ava Zandi, Center Intern, University of Melbourne, Australia
How does a person with no exclusive or cultural connection to Iran decide to study and learn Persian fluently, and, subsequently, create a successful career as an author, editor, and lecturer focusing on Persian literature? Professor Laetitia Nanquette answers this question, by saying, “one summer, I read Maulana’s (Rumi’s) translation in French and really connected with it.” This comment reflects something deeply important, passionate, and moving, certainly about Persian poetry, but it also commitment and passion of the reader—Nanquette herself—who today works as a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Australia in the School of the Arts and Media.
Nanquette, born in the suburbs of Paris, spent years studying in France, the United Kingdom, Iran, and the United States, before arriving in yet another continent, where today she teaches courses on Persian literature; world literature; literature and globalization, sociology of literature, and digital humanities. Nanquette’s work is informed by her strong connection to Iran and she frequently travels to Iran for research, and notes the reasons for her interest in the country: “I love the language, I love the musicality of it!”
“But I am also motivated by the intellectual work of trying to understand a very complex system like the Iranian literary one,” Nanquette adds. “And, I am also inspired by teaching and exploring broader cultural interests, not just those connected to Iran, but the different places in which I have been living since I started this journey,” she adds. When considering the question of how being a non-Iranian writing on Iran influences her work, Nanquette says, “I think my knowledge of Persian and the love for the country means that I am coming from a place of empathy, and trying to understand it. That’s my position.”
Nanquette recalls that before pursuing a career in Persian literature, she travelled to Iran to ensure that she was making the right decision. “I spent a year in Esfahan first, then Tehran, and lots of travelling in between. It was an amazing discovery. Then, I discovered contemporary Persian literature through friends from the university, and that became my thing.”
After her visit, Nanquette went on to complete her masters and PhD at the University of London. When reflecting on her time in Iran, she notes, “it wasn’t always easy, but it opened up the world for me. It changed my life. I fell in love with the country and that feeling hasn’t left me really.” Nanquette’s two books, Iranian Literature after the Islamic Revolution. Production and Circulation in Iran and the World (2021) and Orientalism versus Occidentalism: Literary and Cultural Imagining Between France and Iran since the Islamic Revolution (2017), are a reflection of her commitment to the field of contemporary Iranian literature as well as its place in the larger global context.
Nanquette also recognises that her status as ‘outsider’ has certain implications in terms of access when researching. ”I think in some cases it helps that I’m French, in some cases it restricts possibilities. Being non-Iranian is, of course, important, but the fact of being a woman also plays a role. And age, as well as status, in field work,” she adds. Nanquette identifies these unique circumstances in terms of how it differentiates her from Iranian scholars, but also notes how it offers another perspective. “I do think it is important to have non-Iranians and Iranians building on each other’s work and ideas,” she says.
Addressing her most recent book, Iranian Literature after the Islamic Revolution, Nanquette explains that one of her aims is to make contemporary Persian literature better-known through her scholarship and translation. “I think everyone knows at least a little bit about classical Persian literature, but contemporary literature is far less known. I want to show the complexity and sophistication of it.” she says.
While Nanquette’s book focuses on contemporary literature of Iran, she also explores the ‘larger issues’ of Iranian literary production in Iran, as well as in diaspora communities in the U.S., France, and Australia. “I’m looking mostly at prose and how it has functioned and circulated in the past 40 years.” The first part of the book focuses on Iran and on the forms and structures of the field and how it works in relation to Iranian society. Nanquette has also turned her attention to the Iranian diaspora, as well as the circulation of Persian literature among non-Iranians through translation.
Nanquette’s comparative emphasis—looking at literature within the frame of Iranian society and politics, economics—and at Iranian literature as a global phenomenon and its different patterns in different countries, is central to her research. She says she tries to make connections between countries that are often looked at separately. She says that she has been surprised by some of the research.
“I expected to see a lot more exchange between literary Iran and the diaspora because I was used to seeing lots of connections with cinema and with music,” she says, “but the truth is there is a scarcity of exchange between these two.”
Nanquette says this works against some of the patterns presented in the work of postcolonial or world literature discourses; there is usually more transnational exchange, as well as evidence of how national borders are more fluid. “But there are some exceptions,” she adds. “I met with a lot of writers, publishers and translators, who are trying to bridge this gap and make things happen. It’s difficult and there are many impediments, but things are happening. It’s inspiring,” she adds.
Inside Iran, Nanquette points to the challenges posed for literary production itself. “Indeed, there are a lot of constraints on the Iranian book market, and that’s one of the reasons why it is so difficult for Iranian literature to find its way into a more global marketplace of ideas and readers,” she says. The sanctions, according to Nanquette, are an obvious factor. Sanctions from the US and the European Union and Australia are, according to her “having a huge impact on the cultural field.”
Another challenge to authors, publishers, and book sellers, says Nanquette is censorship. “There are lots of debates around censorship and some people say it can be productive, because it pushes writers to be more sophisticated and creative. But, I think if you look at it holistically, it slows down the process very much and also limits the possibilities for literary creation in many ways.” Nanquette sees it ultimately as a major obstacle to authors and readers in Iran and beyond.
When asked to touch on the differences in literature between the diaspora communities in the U.S., France and Australia, Nanquette says that the differences are largely governed by genre. “In the US, a lot of the writing is in the form of memoirs and autobiographies. In France, you don’t see so much of this. You find a lot of novels, a lot of poetry, fewer memoirs and autobiographies, because that’s not what French readers are interested in, really,” she says.
Nanquette observes that in the US there has been a trend of looking for memoirs by Iranian, and more generally, Middle Eastern women talking about how coming to the West was a journey towards self-discovery and freedom. “This kind of discourse has been prevalent among publishers , so these publications are very much directing what writers write and readers read about Iran and those of Iranian heritage,” she adds.
When comparing her observations about the US diasporic cultural production with that of Australia, Nanquette says that Iranian writers are also producing autobiographical texts, but are less focused on Iran and the revolution or the politics of the country. “Instead, Iranian-Australian writing is much more focused on the journey of refugees and new immigrants to Australia,” she adds.
Nanquette suggests that the reason for this is because Australia, in general, is having important political discussions on this issue, and publishers are very much attuned to this. “So, you’ve got for example, Behrouz Boochani’s book, No Friend of the Mountains, which has been widely acclaimed and discussed. I guess I haven’t seen as many books talking about the refugee journey by Iranian writers in say France or in the US. It doesn’t quite fit into the discourse of those countries and publishing industries” she says.
On the topic of the diaspora in Australia, Nanquette adds, “Australia is on the margins of Iranian Studies. Until quite recently, it didn’t have a lot of Iranian cultural production. But that is starting to change.” This new trend, Nanquette says, is something she is following closely. “it’s been really interesting for me to watch this space grow and develop. It’s different than what has happened in North America and Europe,” she adds.
Currently, Nanquette is working on a new project focused, on the publishing industry in Iran from the 1950s until today, and she explains that it will be more driven by archival research. Fortunately for her, access to sources inside Iran affords her the ability to conduct this important research, lending a much needed perspective outside that national context. Indeed, we look forward to reading more of Nanquette’s literary scholarship both about Iran and the diaspora context.